This has been my summer of canning, and I’m loving it. I have been blessed with a bountiful garden; enough for all we want to eat fresh, enough to share with friends, and enough to can and freeze for the coming winter. It is a good feeling to know that we do not have to depend on the grocery store for our survival, not that we wouldn’t miss some of the amenities.
However, these two methods of food preservation (canning and freezing) rely on electric power. Electricity to heat the boiling water for canning and processing and continued power to maintain the freezers. What if something happened to the power supply? What alternatives would we have?
The unstable world environment and the threat of natural disasters could have a very real impact on our food supply. This brings to mind the Donner Party of decades ago. They were pioneers traveling west to California who got trapped in the Sierra Nevada during blizzards and cold temperatures. They slowly starved to death and some even resorted to cannibalism.
True, we don’t live in pioneer times, but those folks who traveled west by wagon trains for months at a time knew some secrets of food preservation without modern conveniences. It’s a sure bet that they didn’t carry heavy canners to preserve food over the open fire or have modern freezers in their covered wagons! However, they did pack enough food to get them through until they established a homestead and could begin growing their own.
Their methods of preserving food without electricity or a gas supply are still good for us to know today, not only in case of a power grid failure, but also for folks desiring to live off the grid in remote areas. Here are seven ways of safely preserving food without the aid of electricity.
1. Salt: In today’s world, we tend to think of salt more as a seasoning than a method of preservation, but this way of thinking was reversed in ancient times. Folks living near a saline or salty body of water had the ability to dehydrate the water and gather salt, a valuable commodity. Roman soldiers were even paid their wages in salt for a period of time. Salt reduces moisture, inhibits bacterial growth, and also adds a flavoring to foods. Salted pork was often standard fare for people traveling long distances over land or water. Small barrels of pork embedded in salt or a salt brine were common, as were salt brines used to enhance the preservation of fish, fowl and game before drying or smoking. It’s a standard addition to most pickling recipes.
2. Fat: Surprise, surprise, but fat has exceptional preservative properties, especially beef feet or tallow and suet. Pioneer women would often take cuts of meat and place them in barrels or crocks and cover them with tallow or suet. The important thing was to keep the container sealed from air, hence the congealed fat prevented oxygen and airborne microbes from reaching the meat. These fats are standard additions to pemmican recipes, which are concentrated mixtures of fat and protein that are used as nutritious foods. Part of Canadian cuisine, pemmican resembles dried meatballs consisting mainly of dried beef or buffalo with an equal amount of fat plus some added raisins or black cherries. They are dense and high in energy.
3. Honey: This food has remarkable preservative properties. A 3,000 year-old jar of honey was discovered in an Egyptian tomb and tests revealed that it was still safe to eat. Pioneers preserved their most prized cuts of meat in honey, which not only preserved the meat but gave it a pleasant, sweet taste. Just imagine if they would have combined the salt and honey; they would have invented the modern craze of sweet and salty! The only downside to using honey as a preservative is that it is hard to harvest a lot of it and it can be very expensive.
4. Vinegar: Good ol' vinegar. Today, vinegar is used not only in cooking, but also canning and other food preservation, and as a household and fruit and vegetable cleaner. Pioneers knew these qualities long ago. It is perhaps the most potent, natural antiseptic that you can safely consume. Actually, it is acetic acid and is usually a 4 to 5 percent solution in water. Unlike honey, it is readily available and easy to make from various fruits such as apples. It is used to preserve everything from vegetables to fruits to meats to fish and fowl. The typical process is simple, just immerse the food in vinegar in a container. Sometimes salt and vinegar are used together for extra preservative properties and flavor.
5. Drying or dehydration: Although a simple process, the success to dehydration is to remove as much moisture as possible. It is used to preserve everything from vegetables to fruits, meat, fowl and fish, although different drying methods are used for each type of food. Beans and legumes were strung on sticks and hung in the rafters of cabins and tepees to dry; fish were filleted and often salted before being hung in the sun on racks or over smoldering fires; strips of meat were sliced thin, salted and also hung like fish to dry; fruits were sliced thin and left to dry in the sun during the day and taken indoors at night and hung in the rafters to finish drying. They were turned often and sometimes smoked. Drying is probably the oldest food preservation method.
6. Root cellar: This method is basically for root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, radishes, etc. This approach provides multiple benefits such as fairly consistent temperatures in winter and summer; consistent humidity, which is essential to root vegetables; some degree of protection from insects and animals; protection from sunlight; and easy access to a variety of vegetables.
7. Smoking: This method is used primarily for larger cuts of meat and whole fish to be successfully dried and preserved, for smoking is a form of drying. The traditional drying method is good for smaller pieces of meat but will not sufficiently preserve larger cuts. Smoking fish, fowl and game over a low and slow draft of smoke in an enclosed space not only dries out the food, but the smoke and moderate heat both kills and inhibits bacterial and fungal growth. The meat and fish are often cured with a dry mixture of salt and spices to add extra flavor. I remember helping my uncle hang hams in the smokehouse to cure and how good it smelled. Even after removal from the smoke house, large pieces of smoked meats will last a long time if kept in a well-ventilated, cool and dark area.
I do love canning at this time of year, but maybe it is time to consider these alternative methods. They are not only practical, but could also add extra flavor to foods. We all need to eat, and most of us actually enjoy it, too! It is a good feeling to know that we have a “stash” of good food at our disposal without depending on the public food supply. This is only a natural progression from a successful garden.